Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said students should expect to be taught "in-person and alongside other students".
It would be right to stay online when there's a "genuine benefit to using technology", he said.
But he warned university leaders: "I do not expect to see online learning used as a cost-cutting measure."
Parents would find it "odd" if students could go to other social activities but were not allowed back into lecture halls, the education secretary told the Universities UK conference.
Record numbers of 18 year olds from the UK will be starting university this autumn - and Mr Williamson, speaking via a video link, said students were craving a "return to normality".
Even with safety measures against Covid, the education secretary said there should not be unnecessary delays on starting face-to-face classes.
Teaching students in-person could be more effective, said Mr Williamson, allowing them to benefit from the "conversations you have around the margins", and from the support of other students.
Trying to teach "complex molecular biology techniques" was much harder over Zoom, he told the conference at Northumbria University.
During the past two academic years, the pandemic saw much teaching switching to online - but there have been petitions from students concerned that lectures might carry on online into the autumn term.
An annual survey on value for money highlighted complaints from students about paying full tuition fees for online learning.
The education secretary, who faced criticism this week after he confused footballer Marcus Rashford with rugby player Maro Itoje in an interview, also reiterated warnings about universities where too few students went on to graduate jobs.
It was "simply unacceptable" that at 25 higher education institutions, fewer than half of students progressed to such graduate posts or further study, said Mr Williamson.
He reaffirmed suggestions of introducing minimum entry requirements for university courses, such as a good pass at GCSE English and maths.
And he said the government would press ahead with proposed changes to the admissions timetable, so that students would have their A-level results before completing their applications.
There were suggestions from university heads at the meeting that some students preferred the greater flexibility of online lectures, such as those with caring responsibilities.
Steve West, the new president of Universities UK, said there would be a return to in-person teaching where possible, but he suggested a blend of online and face-to-face study would emerge - and that the greater use of digital technology could enhance learning.
"To politicians and commentators who have asked: 'Why not everything in person?' I respectfully point out that the move of some teaching, learning and assessment online was already happening pre-Covid.
"The pandemic merely accelerated the pace of change," said Prof West, the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England Bristol.